opal (ōˈpəl) [key], a mineral consisting of poorly crystalline to amorphous silica, SiO2· n H2O; the water content is quite variable but usually ranges from 3% to 10%. Common opal is usually colorless or white, but it may be gray, brown, yellow, or red; the color is due to fine-grained impurities. Opal is formed at low temperatures from silica-bearing waters and can occur in fissures and cavities of any rock type. Precious, or gem, opal has a rich iridescence and remarkable play of changing colors, usually in red, green, and blue. This is the result of a specific internal structure consisting of regularly packed uniform spheres of amorphous silica a few tenths of a micron in diameter; sphere diameter and refractive index determine the range of colors displayed. The greater part of the world's supply of precious opal comes from the Coober Pedy and Andamooka fields in South Australia. The original source, known in Roman times, was in what is now E Slovakia. Precious opal has also been mined in Honduras, Mexico, and the Virgin Valley in Nevada. Fire opal is a bright red transparent or translucent opal that may or may not show a play of color.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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